At the butcher shop, whole chickens and sides of salmon are easy enough to identify, but ribs, pork shoulder, and brisket might need some ’splainin’.
Pork ribs: Back ribs are cut from the top of the pig’s rib cage, between the spine and the side ribs. They taper from one end of the rack to the other, are leaner than side ribs, and cook more quickly. Side ribs, a.k.a. spare ribs, are between the back ribs and the sternum. They have a lower meat-to-bone ratio than back ribs, but more fat and flavour. Look for St. Louis cut side ribs, which are trimmed into even racks four to five inches wide. Both backs and sides are delicious, but when you travel south to the bar-becue belt and order ribs, you get side ribs. ’Nuff said.
Pork shoulder: For pulled pork, you need pork shoulder. But an entire shoulder weighs 14–18 lbs (7–9 kg), so unless you have an army to feed, what you really want is a piece of shoulder. The best cut, both size- and eating-wise, is a 6–10 lb (3–4 kg) shoul-der blade roast, formerly known as a “Boston butt” or a “pork butt” roast. If you do indeed have an army to feed, try two butts instead of one whole shoulder.
Beef brisket: Not only is brisket the most challenging cut to smoke properly, but it’s also the hardest to understand. A whole one can weigh 8–16 lbs (4– 8 kg), consisting of two parts: the flat cut and the point cut. The flat (the deep pectoral muscle) is a large, lean, rectangular piece; the wedge-shaped point (the superficial pectoral muscle) is separated from the flat by a thick layer of fat. For smoking, you want to cook either a whole brisket or a chunk of brisket that has both point and flat. The leaner and thinner brisket flat on its own is not great for smoking since it can dry out, though it’s more common at grocery stores because it is a fantastic braising meat.